Books: Glued to the Box : Introduction |
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With the last piece selected for this volume I complete a ten-year tour of duty as the Observer’s television critic. Visions Before Midnight and The Crystal Bucket were the first and second volumes of selections from a column written almost every week during that period. This volume is the third and last. By the time it is published I will have moved on to other things, and probably already started regretting that I ever walked away from such a cushy number. More and more often, as the years wore on, people who felt compelled to encourage me in the delusion that I was a hard-working and useful member of the community would ask me how I planned my viewing week. Wasn’t it tiring, deciding what to watch and then sitting there watching it? Dutifully I would pretend that it was back-breaking labour, but neither I nor my interlocutor was ever fooled.

As the television critic sits there night after night, year after year, other men are inhaling toxic dust down coal mines, testing for hair-line cracks in the top rims of cooling towers, talking in squeaky voices as they breathe helium at the bottom of the North Sea. Women stunt-persons are doing box-falls down oubliettes in Hammer horror movies. Policewomen with punk hairstyles are out acting as decoys to catch psychopathic rapists who will be fined a hundred pounds and bound over the keep the peace. The greatest risk to the television critic is bed-sores, or a sprained wrist as he reaches too suddenly for the thin mints. The present writer once spilled a tray of ice-cubes into his lap when he saw Barbara Woodhouse kissing a horse, but apart from that he got through a whole decade unscathed. Indeed there isn’t any reason why a ten-year stint as a television critic should not be extended to embrace the rest of a long life, provided that due attention is paid to diet and exercise. The muscles atrophy, like those of an astronaut too long aloft. Couple that with the almost inevitable acquisition of fatty tissue and you can end up looking like a bean bag, or, dare I say it, a television pouffe.

But though the television critic’s body might conceivably be said to be at some slight risk, there is no longer any real reason to think that his cerebral cortex is in danger — unless one has sustained terminal brain damage without knowing it, and has been locked up in a special ward where they encourage the patient to pretend he is writing the introduction to a volume of criticism while they watch him through one-way glass. When I started as a critic there were plenty of wise voices to tell me that I was wasting my prose on the exaltation of ephemera. By the time I was able to contemplate giving the job up, most of the same wise voices were ready to tell me that I was renouncing my true métier. Either they thought that my prose had sunk to the level of what it was criticising, or else they thought that what I was criticising had risen to meet my prose. In effect, self-congratulatory though it might sound to say so, the latter was what had happened — in the sense, not that television had significantly improved, but that their estimation of it had. Nowadays it is much less common for educated people to scorn television. Even some of the Cambridge dons now have television sets standing bare-faced in the living room instead of hidden behind an antimacassar. General statements about the culturally deleterious effect of television are nowadays less likely to go unchallenged.

Philosophy, some philosophers say, leaves things as they are but gives them a thorough airing first. Television, I think, is more like that conception of philosophy than it is like those things which until recently it was regularly accused of being — a plague, an apocalypse or a universal solvent. It brings out the histrionic element in otherwise decorous people; it is least of all to be trusted when it purports to show the unvarnished documentary truth; but on the whole it looks at the world while leaving the world as it is. It is not an art form in itself, any more than the telephone is an art form in itself. If people who would realise the folly of deploring the telephone’s artistic limitations nevertheless deplore television’s artistic limitations, their foolishness is not the fault of television. Television is not even a medium — at least not in the sense that McLuhan and lesser pundits tried to call it a medium, with special properties shared by no other medium. Television is a medium only in the sense that a window is a medium. A window might limit our perception of the world according to how it restricts the panorama within its frame, blunts our feeling for the movement of the air, and gives us little idea of how things out there actually smell. But unless we have spent our lives ill in bed then we have been out there, and know the world for what it is. That is how we know the window for what it is: because we know that it does not very much shape the world — only, temporarily, what we see.

There are welcome signs at long last that the kind of punditry which declaims so glibly about how television distorts life is being asked to show its credentials. The chief qualification required ought to be the ability to give an indication, preferably unprompted, that life itself has been apprehended as something hard to pin down, sum up or explain away. Ten years ago it was still possible to acquire a reputation as a profound analyst of popular culture by pointing out how the homogeneous ‘flow’ of television programming imposed the values of a consumer society on the increasingly defenceless population. Today anyone marshalling such a set of assumptions would at least be obliged to argue his case. Beyond that, if his readers were sufficiently on the qui vive, he might be asked to explain what he thought a less homogeneous flow of programming might look like, or even what a non-consumer society might be conceived as being, always supposing that it could be that and still be free.

Apart from those programmes which set out to be something better than trivial but end up as trivial because of deficient inspiration, there is indeed a good deal that is deliberately trivial in British television. Even those of us who profess to find junk edifying are likely to draw the line at, say, Sale of the Century. But it is a nice question whether such programmes debase their viewers. It is at least as likely that the viewers debase the programmes, in the sense that the programmes are tailored to the requirements of those who watch them. If you believe, as Brecht pretended the East German government believed, that the population needs to be dissolved and a new one elected, then you must say so. Failing that, you must take people as they are. Triviality is one of the things that free people like to consume. Any free society is a consumer society, because it is bound to contain a lot of people who consume things that we don’t approve of. Other people consume. You and I eat.

In this context it is a legitimate argument, if not an especially convincing one, to compare ITV with the BBC, deplore the presence of commercials on the former, and regret the former’s influence on the latter. But it is not a legitimate argument to compare British television with television in, say, the Soviet Union and cry up the latter’s alleged freedom from advertising pressure. The whole of Soviet television is one enormous commercial for single party government. Visitors who come back from the Soviet Union and tell you how marvellous it is to be able to look at public buildings without advertisements stuck all over them are just telling you that they can’t decipher the Cyrillic alphabet. Every large building in Moscow carries a naked plug for the infallibility of the Central Committee. One of the great wonders of intellectual life in the Western world is the way that those who proclaim themselves disillusioned with a supposedly materialist society are content to recommend, as paradigm cases of societies which are not materialist, societies which are not only materialist in every respect but actually say they are.

Back in the free world, the variations in quality between the television systems of different countries are admittedly sharp enough, although they point away from, rather than towards, the sole responsibility of the cathode tube. American television is undoubtedly worse than British television, but the glaring difference is evidence against, rather than for, the culpability of the medium itself. If television is relatively civilised in Britain, and relatively degraded in the United States, then with the medium appearing as a constant in both sums it is very likely that other factors have decided the issue. What is wrong with American television is the way the networks have been set up. (The organisational flaw is even more serious in France, but because it leads merely to political subservience rather than to rampant philistinism it attracts less attention from cultural doomwatchers.) In America people are free to view what they like but the programme makers are not so free to make programmes of which they can be proud. One of the results is a strong film industry. Another result is an embattled public service broadcasting network (PBS) with low funds but high esprit de corps. A probable future result will be independently produced programmes of high quality made available on video disc or cassette — together, alas, with independently produced programmes of bloodcurdling prurience made available the same way. But the main result, here and now, is a daily nightmare and a nightly daydream on all three main channels, producing an effect on the constant viewer likely to reduce him to a zombie. It is not the fault of the television set, but of what is happening in the studio. The window is clear enough but the world behind it has been obscured by a wall of trash.

At one point I was asked to contemplate setting up as a television critic in New York. The first image that flashed into my head was of Christ cleansing the temple. The second was of Hercules cleaning the Augean stables with his bare hands, water rights to the river Alpheus being unavailable. He would have got a Green Card out of it, but that would be about all. I turned the offer down because seriousness would have been impossible to maintain, and without the possibility of seriousness the kind of humour I like must quickly deteriorate to mere jokes. British television provides enough worthwhile programming, week in and week out, to convince even the most demanding viewer that he is not necessarily committing mental suicide by tuning in regularly. Those demanding viewers who say otherwise are usually doing more demanding than viewing. In America the sceptical critic would have nothing left to say after running through his repertoire of mockery, which would be all used up in about six months. His liking for Hill Street Blues and Lou Grant would scarcely sustain him. Even his affection for Willard the Weatherman on The Today Show would rapidly degenerate to whimsy. He would either have to quit or else become a cynic — and a cynic is not the same thing as a sceptic. A sceptic finds Dallas absurd. A cynic thinks the public doesn’t.

In Britain the sceptical critic can go on being sceptical because when he is offered mutton dressed as lamb he can always point to real lamb. If a big bad classic drama series has been taken at the estimation of its producers and is being ridiculously overpraised, he can compare it with the finely judged play that went comparatively unnoticed last week. If the famous playwright has forgotten how to write, the critic can draw on the example provided by a new comedy series in which the sketches have been composed with real observation and invention. In other words, British television is not homogeneous. A homogeneous ‘flow’ is just what it does not impose. British television is heterogeneous. It is a culture, or at any rate part of one, and can thus be reduced to a socio-political formula only at the price of distortion. When applied to television, such formulaic voodoo shows itself up clearly, since anybody can compare it against what he knows. As a result the practice has been largely given up by those with a sufficient sense of the absurd to be cagey about their personal reputations. The younger and less cautious have reformulated the same position in the language of semiotics, where it remains safely unexamined by anyone except themselves. The older breed of pundit thought he was protecting cultural authenticity. The newer model is protecting nothing except his own salary, but at least he isn’t clouding the issue.

The first duty of the critic is to submit. Not to knuckle under, but to submit. After that he must stay alert. It is not easy to do both, but to do the second without the first is nearly as bad as doing the first without the second. In this respect there is not much to choose between the dumb critic who likes everything and the smart one who likes nothing. The first is tube-struck, in the way that some theatre critics are stage-struck. The second is a purist, in the way that some neurotic parents try to keep their precious child free of germs, only to see it die of a cut finger. The Roman Catholic Church, which has had long experience of playing to a mass audience, has often been obliged to remind its intellectual converts that their objections to plastic statuettes of Christ, with a battery-powered Sacred Heart that lights up in the dark, are objections to the universality of the faith. The Church is there for simple people too. Moderate intelligence is frequently prey to a kind of snobbery which genuine intellectual superiority is careful to avoid. Einstein, a profound appreciator of classical music, would introduce it to those who knew nothing about it by playing them a track or two from a Mantovani record. Quite apart from the matter of elemental human charity, people who complain that the common people are not intelligent enough or not politicised enough should ask themselves what life would be like if everyone were highly intelligent and fully politicised. But there could be no such life. Intelligence is nothing if not comparative and a society in which everybody cared exclusively about politics would be one long meeting. Common decency should be valued, not patronised. It shows contempt, rather than respect, to demand that the people’s repressed creativity should be freed from its bonds. The people’s creativity is already free, and occupied with the business of the day.

Television is simultaneously blamed, often by the same people, for worsening the world and for being powerless to change it. That the world is what it is has never been easy for sensitive souls to accept, and gets harder as faith ebbs. This is not to say, however, that television, or anything else, is without effect. It is just that the effect is never easy to isolate from the cataract of events. People in television must live to the same rules as people who write articles and books. You can’t change things as you would like, but nothing you do will be quite without result: that the consequences of your actions are strictly incalculable should make you more responsible, not less. That is what it means to act from principle. Most people in British television do so, and indeed are encouraged to do so. (As people in French television, for example, are not — a difference between democracies which certainly indicates that France is that much less democratic and probably helps make it so.) Meanwhile the world changes at its own pace, or, in some of its more depressing aspects, obdurately stays the same.

When I started as a television critic, Northern Ireland was a frightening and seemingly intractable issue. As I cease to be a television critic, Northern Ireland is still a frightening and seemingly intractable issue. For ten years, I have done, in this respect, what everybody else has had to do — look on helplessly while the little screen fills with masked men, angry young faces, broken bodies and loops of flame. For a long time there were complaints that television was not telling enough of the story. The complaints were justified. Programmes were indeed suppressed, whether because it was thought they would exacerbate bitterness and abet the terror, or because it was thought that they would simply help the IRA to win. Gradually more and more programmes were screened, telling more and more of the truth. Eventually two complete series provided an education in Irish realities which at least one viewer was glad to have. At the beginning of the current outbreak of troubles I was only sketchily aware that the Northern Ireland Catholics were a minority in their country, or that the Northern Irish Protestants had reason to fear for their chances in a United Ireland. To know what one had not known before was an absolute good. But apart from the educational aspect, there was no denying that the increased television coverage of Northern Ireland did little which was observable to affect the struggle either way. There were frequent complaints that the presence of television cameras made young people more inclined to throw petrol bombs, but this was wishful thinking. Film of a burning soldier horrified all who saw it, but only a dreamer could believe that the soldier would not have been on fire if the camera had not been there. Both sides in Northern Ireland will make propaganda if there are cameras around: they would be foolish not to. But they also go on making war in the dark. The typical deaths in Northern Ireland are not staged for the camera. They happen when a man is shot down in his own hallway with his wife and children looking on, or when a man with a sock over his head drills a squaddie through the flak-jacket with a bullet from an Armalite with a night-sight, so that when he lowers the rifle not even he can see the man who has just been killed.

There is no way of assessing accurately whether television coverage, or access to television by politicians, or the natural propensity of officials and pressure groups to state their case on television if they can — whether any of these things, or any combination of them, necessarily entails the debasement of politics. What would undebased politics be like? All we can be sure of is that in certain countries not notable for laying out the details of public life on television, politics is considerably more debased than it is with us. As the time approached for me to hand in my quill, martial law was declared in Poland. The Polish crisis went on being reported by British television but there were few pictures except those that General Jaruzelski’s military government allowed. Lech Walesa, in his brief period as the natural leader of his country, had done his best to ensure that television both domestic and foreign — and by foreign could only be meant Western — saw as much as possible of what was going on. Television was synonymous with freedom in Poland and if one were obliged to make a single statement about the connection between politics and television then the first thing to say would be that television is synonymous with freedom anywhere. Sophisticated arguments can be made for television’s effectiveness as a repressive tool but those are not arguments about television, only about repression.

From the political angle, television is probably more effective as a scapegoat than as an instrument of debasement. When the Social Democratic Party emerged seemingly out of nowhere, the Labour Party’s right wing were even more ready than the Labour Party’s left wing to call it a creation of the media. Yet if you were setting out to choose a telegenic front-man for a political party of media darlings, Roy Jenkins would scarcely be ideal casting. Television worked in favour of the Social Democrats mainly by showing, with awful clarity, something of what was going on in the Labour Party. The hubbub was deafening but you could take some comfort from the thought that demagoguery had become, on this evidence, harder to get away with. A first-class television performer is more likely to have ambitions as a television performer than as a politician. The old style rabble-rouser might still get somewhere in the streets but on television the odds would be against him. As Sir Oswald Mosley inadvertently demonstrated towards the end of his misspent life, the spellbinding tones of mob oratory sound like rant when the face is in close-up. Tyrants, said Camus, conduct monologues above a million solitudes. The operative word being ‘above’. Aspiring tyrants there will always be, and a million solitudes as well. But television makes it that much harder to be above people. It is not a podium from which you can talk down. On television, arrogance betrays itself very quickly. Giscard d’Estaing, a de Gaulle without the stature, by conducting a monologue on television helped engineer his own downfall.

Anyone afraid of what he thinks television does to the world is probably just afraid of the world. As this world goes he has good cause to be, but sympathy with his distress should not make us forget to ask him what he thinks the modern age would now be like if television were not in it. What does he think, for example, that all those helplessly malleable punters would actually be up to if they were not watching Bruce Forsyth on one mass channel or Larry Grayson on the other? Granting for the moment that it is possible to impose tripe on people who don’t want it, it is an even larger and more questionable assumption to suppose that they would want art if tripe were taken away. The history of the Western world offers no encouragement for the view that there is a naturally wholesome form of entertainment which people would seek out if they were not distracted by the manipulators supposedly controlling the mass market. Even Dr Leavis, who believed in an Organic Society from which the society we now live in represents a catastrophic departure, must have been given pause by the thought of all those people who raced to see bears being baited or a cut-purse broken on the wheel. Nor is there a lot to be said, in retrospect, for such up-market pastimes as forming an after-theatre party to go and taunt the lunatics in Bedlam. People who reel back in horror after accidentally switching on Nicholas Parsons should reflect that the world has had worse things to offer. In the nineteenth century it was a big deal when they brought a dead whale to town.

But an apparently more serious indictment of television as art’s enemy comes from those who say that it is never more inimical than when trying to be art’s friend. This argument can be said to have something to it, if you don’t mind dressing up a mutable set of contingencies as a deterministic inevitability. The BBC has indeed had trouble, since letting go of the original Omnibus, in coming up with an arts magazine programme that does not sound like a desperate attempt by a bazaar proprietor to buttonhole a topee-clad tourist in a hurry to get back to his ship. On the other hand Arena has been well able to keep the Corporation’s conscience in that field, and on commercial television Melvyn Bragg’s The South Bank Show eventually graduated from itty-bittiness to a format in which a single subject could be examined at full, sometimes, disproportionate, length. If this latter opportunity has not always been taken well, that is less likely to be the fault of the medium than the fault of the people involved, who would perhaps be more likely to do better if they were criticised in specific terms instead of continually being told that television is the enemy of art, etc. There is a way of talking about art when you are on television, so long as you realise that time is limited. But time is limited in any medium, even the printed page.

There are limits to the amount that a television programme can contribute to the understanding of a work of art, but within those limits there is every reason to believe that at least something useful can be said, and the evidence that a television programme can provide an unbeatably immediate introduction to a work of art is overwhelming. For my own part, the clearest case has been provided by opera. During the course of ten years I have seen dozens of operas on television which I might have been very slow to catch up with in the opera house or even on record if I had not been won to their cause by a presentation on the little screen. Before its television presentation in late 1981, Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila was known to me only through a single aria sung by Callas on one of her anthology records of plums from the French repertoire. I might never have got round to hearing the whole thing until I was old and grey. But before the first act of the television presentation was over I was already enslaved for life, and not just because Shirley Verrett was the ideal physical incarnation of the role on top of wielding the perfect voice for it.

Opera began as a democratic art. In Italy it still is: you can stand at the back of the gods during a production of Andrea Chenier and watch truck drivers all around you mouthing the words along with the singers. The economic conditions of the pre-television twentieth century tended to put live opera out of reach of the wider public. Now television has democratised it again — which doesn’t mean that all people will end up wanting it. But it will be there for them if they do, and I can’t see how television can seriously be asked to do more for an art form than that.

It is asked to do more, of course. Michael Holroyd, in a long article published by the Observer (10 January 1982), said that the typical television drama series tended to miss all the nuances of the written work on which it was based and often resulted in the restoration of commercial life to a book already dead from natural causes. Melvyn Bragg dealt with Holroyd’s general attitude in fine style the following week, but even when you consider that the occasional series, such as the exquisite dramatic adaptation of Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, actually manages to have more nuances than the original book, nevertheless it has had to be conceded that there is some truth in the first of Holroyd’s two points. The adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, for example, was greeted with excessive quantities of awe, gratitude and worshipful prostration. Any funeral moving at such a pace would have been dispersed by the police before it got to the graveyard. The gifted producer, Derek Granger, has accomplished a great deal during his career and all of it has been more coherent than Brideshead Revisited. But only the most incorrigible art-snob would have argued that it would have been better for people not to have seen it. For one thing, it made the book a bestseller all over again. We can assume that Mr Holroyd does not think it to be a book whose life should be regarded as over. We can assume, come to think of it, that Mr Holroyd does not think that about his own books either, and would be glad enough if Derek Granger rang him up tomorrow to discuss the possibility of a thirteen-episode series about Lytton Strachey. It would be interesting to see if Mr Holroyd could bring himself to say no even if Rowan Atkinson were proposed for the title role.

But operas begin, and adaptations at least half begin, in another medium. The case is less equivocal when we come to works of art, or would-be works of art, which are created directly for television. Here the critic had better be sure of his own judgment, because he will be judged upon it in his turn. From the reviews given to this volume’s two predecessors I have grown used to finding out that I don’t take the real achievements of television seriously — the real achievements being plays devoted to what their authors conceive of as the decaying social fabric of contemporary Britain. On the other hand I take such meretricious, commercially motivated travesties as Holocaust far too seriously. If I may be permitted the indulgence of a cross-reference to myself, what I actually thought about Holocaust is recorded in The Crystal Bucket. What I should have thought about it was explained to me in The Times Literary Supplement by an Oxford don who disapproved of the series almost as much as Dr Steiner did. The don particularly objected to my notion that historical truths have to be vulgarised before they can be transmitted. He chose to think that I was recommending vulgarisation, instead of just regretfully stating a commonplace. He also chose to ignore that in the case of Holocaust the historical truth was transmitted, to the people of West Germany, with a degree of success that nobody would have dared to predict. A proposed statute of limitations on Nazi crimes was staved off as a direct result of the programme’s effect on public opinion. None of this means that Holocaust was a model of artistic integrity. (Although it demonstrated, among the clumsily managed dramatic foreshortenings, a much more detailed and sensitive awareness of the historical facts than most of its detractors proved capable of appreciating, but let that pass.). What it does mean, however, is that Holocaust was effective on at least one level — the very level on which television is so often accused of being ineffective, the level where the memory of political experience is preserved and delivered to our successors in some intelligible form. You might assume that such a point would, in this context, be thought of as crucial by a serious academic critic writing in a reputable literary weekly. But it is easier to get on a high horse, especially if your pride depends on believing that only an intellectual can understand genocide. Not even Dr Steiner, who knows a lot about the subject, can quite divest himself of the idea that the annihilation of the European Jews is a tragedy impossible for ordinary mortals to imagine in its essence. Yet the undoubted fact that its scale makes it hard to grasp does not make it impossible to imagine in its essence. Anybody can imagine it in its essence. Its essence is the massacre of the innocent. All you have to imagine is having your children taken away from you and killed. Holocaust caught something of that in dramatic form, passed it on to a lot of people who did not know much about it, and moved them. To assume that they were the kind of people not worth moving was to assume a lot — but it was an assumption, I noted with interest, that many riders of high horses made.

In the last ten years I have spent a lot of time looking at programmes about the Nazi era and comparing them with what I have learned from other sources. I can appreciate that Holocaust is outpointed for finesse by Arthur Miller’s Playing for Time (reviewed in this volume, 18 January, 1981) and that both are left looking histrionic by Resnais’s documentary Nuit et brouillard — which in its turn is not invulnerable to the charge of being unequal to the event. But as well as the issue of the work of art being equal to the event, there is the issue of how the event is to be brought home, in at least some of its importance, to those who know little about it and less about art. It is not wholly an aesthetic issue. Nor, on the other hand, is it merely a sociological issue. It is a cultural issue, taking place in the contentious area where art and politics must be talked about together. To my mind it is the most serious issue that television raises. There is some prestige to be won by pointing out how the original works of art produced by the box are very few and that even those are not up to much. But to see the originality and truth in what was never meant to be art at all is the television critic’s real task. To see the inadequacy and bogusness of much that claims the status of quality is the same task from a different aspect. The literary critic, or the critic of any other specific form of artistic expression, may detach himself from the world for as long as the work of art he is contemplating appears to do the same. But the television critic is dealing with the world itself and can no more get rid of it than jump up into his own arms. He must judge everything he sees against what he knows the world to be, while never forgetting that what he sees is helping to make him the person who does the knowing.

But nobody ever set out to write the script for a television series with the intention of blocking a proposed West German statute of limitations on Nazi crimes. If he had, it probably wouldn’t have happened. The effect we want is seldom the effect we get. Concerned students of television have long worried about how the image of the police as projected on the little screen might affect the police force’s conception of itself and the people’s attitude towards law and order. When I started as a critic, a son of Z Cars called Softly, Softly was still portraying the police as incorruptible paragons, only one degree more shop-soiled than Dixon of Dock Green. In the course of the decade, the image roughened, by way of The Sweeney, all the way to Law and Order, in which police corruption was taken for granted. Then Juliet Bravo put the clock back to Dixon in skirts. Pundits who think they know all about the rough side of life tell us that Law and Order was the show closest to reality. Not a few of these pundits live in Barnes or Putney, where Dixon and Juliet Bravo are either on the beat or will turn up in a Panda car at the first sign of trouble. The likelihood seems to be that the nice areas are full of nice policemen, the nasty ones are full of nasty ones, and that the demography of British privilege and deprivation has very little to do with television programmes. There are some subjects about which you can tell the truth until your voice gives out and see nothing for your trouble.

On the other hand, you can never be sure that telling the truth won’t have an effect, sometimes a profound one. Feminism in Italy started as a component of the radical theoretical discussion which goes on perpetually over the people’s heads. But when feminism came to dominate the women’s magazines such as Grazia and Amica it changed the way of life of a whole country in remarkably short order, and with unquestionably beneficial effect. Popular forms of communication can be regarded as passive only by the kind of analyst who is himself asleep. In any free society they are permanently full of information about changes getting ready to happen. Television, especially, is teeming with relevant signals. But you must learn when and where to look. When I came to television criticism it was big news if the BBC appointed a female newsreader. Later it was even bigger news when ITV did the same, because the Fleet Street tabloids (already on a survival diet of television’s leftovers) could endlessly cobble stories about what Angela had that Anna hadn’t and vice versa. As I leave the job there are half a dozen female newsreaders and the latest recruits take up the post without any fuss at all. To that extent feminism might appear to have won a victory. But it might equally have been a victory for tokenism, and tokenism is not always the best indicator of real developments. The true sign of feminism’s triumph on television has been the much more recent, and probably irreversible, rise to prominence of the women comedians. They are there by the right of a much more formidable social law than mere tokenism. They are there because of the law of supply and demand.

The same applies in the case of racial minorities. It is no reflection on Trevor McDonald — whose summaries of the Polish crisis for ITN were models of the craft — to say that the news programmes could go on appointing people with black skins to a point well beyond positive discrimination and still prove nothing except a wish to be just. But when a black comedian on OTT sings a bad-taste, talking blues version of Trevor McDonald reading the news then a real change has occurred. Probably that was the secret reason why OTT aroused so much critical hatred, with fond memories of TW3 being invoked to ward off the interloper. Only briefly an innovation and all too soon an institution, TW3 attacked, or pretended to attack, everything that was recognisable about British life. OTT shows you what you don’t recognise, or perhaps do but don’t want to. Where did these people come from? Hardly anybody on the programme seems able to tell an adverb from an adjective. And they’re all so young.

Which is the cue for an incipient oldster to pack his gear. George Sanders committed suicide when he found himself making the same films again. By now, because of television’s high burnout rate, there is a whole new generation of programme makers eagerly coming up with fresh ideas that I recognise in every detail. I suppose that if I were sufficiently professional I would be able to give a pristine response twice. But I have never thought of television criticism as a career. It is the sort of thing one goes into with a whole heart but not for one’s whole life. Shaw said that three years as a theatre critic was the maximum before insanity set in — the implication being that anyone who lasted longer than that was too dull to be unbalanced by his nightly ordeal. Shaw also limited his turn as a music critic to about the same span of time. From his few years of criticising music and theatre in London came the six volumes of the Standard Edition which constitute the greatest critical achievement in the English language. He did it all while on the way through to doing something else.

Kenneth Tynan, in the theatrical field the nearest we have so far seen to being Shaw’s critical successor, felt the same. He was not a placeman. He did not love criticism as a career: he loved the theatre, which he thought was life. In the introduction to Visions Before Midnight I told the story, suitably dramatised to make my part in it less dull, of how Tynan placed the idea in my head that the presumptuousness of publishing a television column in book form was the very reason why it should be done. That was how I began, and if he wasn’t exactly at my shoulder as I wrote, he was certainly in my mind, just as he was in the mind of every other critic in Fleet Street who aspired to something better than mere hack work. Somewhere in the middle of the following decade Tynan asked me to collaborate in a theatrical venture based on Willy Donaldson’s Both the Ladies and the Gentlemen. I would write it and Tynan would produce it. The project foundered when we discovered that our disagreement about the political role of sexual liberty was fundamental. I thought it had no political role and Tynan thought it was the gunpowder of social revolution. But the joint enterprise fell apart in the nicest possible way. If he thought I was hide-bound he didn’t say so. He was also generously ready to turn a deaf ear when I lectured him in print about his defection from the critical task. We usually want our mentors to go on being what we first admired them for, and neglect to realise that if they have always done what their admirers wanted they would never have done anything to admire. Tynan understood all this very well and customarily forgave his emulators their savagery. Perhaps he was just secure in the knowledge that he could write better than anybody. At any rate, he was always hospitable, always himself, always there: immortal already but handily still alive, so that you could drop in for tea.

Then he got so sick in the lungs he had to move to California. In the summer of 1979 I was visiting Los Angeles and the Tynans asked me to lunch at their house in Coldwater Canyon. I went there by cab from where I was staying in the Hollywood Hills. In the Raymond Chandler novels the canyons were dark places where Philip Marlowe got sapped at night. Nowadays they are prime real estate and all the trees belong individually to the ranch houses that crouch expensively among them. At the Tynans’ house, just off the main road through the canyon, lunch was a fruit and vegetable salad served at a table out in the brilliant sunlight. Tynan asked me if I had thought of doing more television and less criticism. I said I had. He said, in the self-examining way which some people misinterpreted as defensive, that those who had always badgered him to go back to theatre criticism had never realised that he would not have been the critic he was if he could have contemplated doing nothing else for ever.

When Tynan left theatre criticism it was to go further into the theatre. He took his critical sense with him and it made him what he was as a dramaturg. Some people thought he would have done even better in that role if he had been more critical and less easily excited by the stage, but they wanted a lot, since the capacity to be excited is the first requirement of any critic of anything — although ideally it should be followed as closely as possible by the second requirement, the ability to collect one’s thoughts. Once, when directing a Footlights revue on the Edinburgh Fringe in the late 1960s, I had read Tynan’s first book He That Plays the King night after night, wondering how to make what was happening on the stage half as thrilling as what the prodigious young critic had made happen in print. ‘This is a book of enthusiasms,’ he said in the preface to that most dazzling of all first volumes, ‘written... out of an almost limitless capacity for admiration.’ In the last days of his life he was still like that. I can remember eating a lot more than my fair share of the melon. Tynan ate nothing but smoked instead — the very thing he was supposed not to do. We were talking about Hemingway and whether success had ruined him. I mentioned what Dwight Mcdonald had said on the subject in Against the American Grain. Tynan said that it was better to go and fish for big game than to sit in New York like Dwight Mcdonald, reviewing other people’s books. He went inside and instantly emerged with an anthology of Hemingway’s fugitive prose. He read a glittering passage about how the Gulf Stream is so clear that it soon absorbs whatever trash and offal is dumped into it. The passage was from a pre-war article published in Esquire. Therefore the stylistic purity Tynan was praising counted as early work. But to score such a small point did not obviate the larger issue. There was a lot in what Tynan was saying. Better, when the right time came, to be doing one’s own work than taking in other people’s washing.

Tynan had helped give me the courage to start and now he was helping give me the courage to stop. From that hour in the canyon, under the hot sun, it was only a matter of choosing the right day to pack it in. I can remember clearly how the thought occurred, and how I mentally cursed myself even at the time for thinking of my own concerns instead of his fate. Because no matter how you willed it otherwise, fate was obviously on its way to meet him. The words he quoted had more resonance than you could wish. As he read out that scintillating evocation of the clear river in the sea, it was impossible not to think of what he would have given for just a few days of easy breathing. But in the bright sunlight of California not even he, surely, could really believe that he was going to die quite yet. So I put off until another day the little speech that would have told him how much I had always respected his example. I hope he guessed it but experience suggests that saying these things outright works better than leaving them to be deduced. Anyway, it is too late to make the same speech now, unless this is it.

Too soon afterwards he was dead. At the memorial service in London, Tom Stoppard, characteristically word perfect, spoke for us all. ‘Ken,’ he said, ‘was part of the luck we had.’ He was certainly part of mine. Apart from a misguided assumption that I would be keen to meet Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee, he had the knack of reading my mind. He could do that for a lot of people. It was because he took them as seriously as they took themselves. He flatteringly assumed that one was a critic for the same reason he had been a critic: out of the impulse to excel, to give what he called a high-definition performance. He thought that such an impulse was a kind of inspiration and that when it went — or, rather, just before it went — it was time to move on to other things.

Well, now it’s time, although I shall look a precious fool if all other sources of income suddenly dry up and I have to sit down in front of the set again for another ten years’ hard. That would be the only good reason for coming back. One has a sense of duty but nobody is indispensable. There were good television critics before I got there, the number has grown in my time, and as I take my leave the woods are full of them, all leaning forward and scribbling notes, with their faces lit up by that spectral glow. Unless brain fever kills them all off overnight, we veterans need never return. So there are no excuses left for not making one’s own programmes instead of sprinkling Ajax on other people’s. When the domestic VCR machine arrived, the last cop-out was gone. Until recently, the serious writer was always able to say that writing for television was the same as relieving himself down the sink. The use of videotape by the television companies should have changed all that but the BBC still somehow managed to wipe its stockpile of plays by Harold Pinter and other names almost as illustrious, thereby convincing everyone all over again that to write for television was to write in water. Nowadays, however, the matter is no longer in the hands of the television companies. The people at home can store anything they like the look of. Not only will you reach the supposedly anonymous millions, but what you say will be preserved by the happy few. If, of course, they like it. The fact that you might actually be judged on your merits is the ineradicable deterrent. But it was always that.

If people don’t like you, they can always switch you off. To that extent, they are all critics. What really scares those deep thinkers who cherish theories about the alienated masses is the possibility that the masses might be composed of individuals. A truly popular medium such as television will always, provided it is not artificially restricted, make this possibility seem more likely instead of less. Hence the fear among those harbouring delusions of superiority: because if the anonymous masses prove to be nothing except a convenient hypothesis then the theorist about mass psychology is out of business, and the aspiring tyrant is reduced to being what he can least bear — one voice among many.

— London, 1983